UI Blue Waters

The National Center for Supercomputing Application's Blue Waters supercomputer facility on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.

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URBANA — An $11.1 million grant to create high-resolution topographical maps of the entire planet will extend the life of the Blue Waters supercomputer by another year.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois landed the grant from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to work with researchers at the University of Minnesota and Ohio State University, who used Blue Waters to create similar digital models of the Arctic and Antarctic for the first time.

The EarthDEM project will apply the same advanced mapping and data-processing techniques to the rest of the planet, producing publicly available data that will help scientists better understand the Earth’s surface.

The digital models already produced for the Arctic and Antarctic are more accurate than most maps of the western United States, said NCSA Director William Gropp.

Instead of sending out teams with surveying equipment on the ground, the process uses high-performance computing to transform satellite images into highly accurate 3-D elevation models, or topographical maps.

“You can actually see aircraft on runways,” said Blue Waters Director Bill Kramer.

Google Maps may have pictures, too, but these models provide three-dimensional information about Earth, Kramer said.

The images have allowed scientists to track changes in the landscape and environment in polar areas sensitive to a changing climate — and even find new colonies of penguins no one knew existed.

The images have also been used to help disaster-relief teams find areas affected by mudslides in New Zealand, and could help detect seismic activity or rising waters along coastlines, Kramer said.

“It really is transforming the way we’re looking at the world,” Gropp said.

The collaboration had its roots in a 2015 presidential executive order to map the Arctic region using new digital techniques applied to satellite images, Kramer said. The only system with enough computing power was Blue Waters, he said.

Kramer was approached by Paul Morin, director of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, who was working on the project with Ian Howat, director of Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

The satellite data was provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for mapping the world and providing other intelligence to the government. The agency has been moving toward more open collaborations with researchers outside the “classified world” to benefit society, he said.

“They have satellites flying around all the time taking images of the Earth,” he said, so the data was already being produced.

The satellites can take “stereo” images of particular spots on the ground, using two photos from slightly different angles. Blue Waters uses that input to measure the difference in depth for every pixel in those images, Gropp said.

“If you do the math right, you can figure out what the height of what you’re seeing is, based on those differences,” he said, which takes a tremendous amount of computing time.

The process not only provides higher-resolution maps than traditional methods but also allows scientists to update their models much more easily to study changes over time, Gropp said.

“It’s a lot of computing, so it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s possible,” Gropp said. “It doesn’t require sending people out again with surveying instruments. It gives you a way to watch the world change in a way we’ve never been able to before.”

The ArcticDEM project went well, taking only about 18 months, so the project was extended to cover the Antarctic, Kramer said. That wrapped up after a year, and last fall the National Geospatical-Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation announced plans for a world-mapping project, Kramer said.

“That’s where we started talking about dedicating Blue Waters to this type of work,” he said.

Since opening in 2013, the supercomputer been used by thousands of scientists around the world, including the UI, to study everything from viruses and weather patterns to galaxies.

Its original funding from NSF and the state of Illinois was intended to cover operations for five years, but NCSA was able to extend it through the end of 2019, Kramer said.

The new grant will keep it running at least through Dec. 31, 2020, Kramer said. The money covers operational costs as well as some funding for staff, he said.

While Blue Waters will no longer be generally available for researchers worldwide, UI scientists will continue to have some access, he said.

The hope is that the project is the first of many research collaborations with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with UI faculty, students and researchers across campus, Gropp said.

The agency recognizes the importance not just of Blue Waters but the UI’s research expertise and capabilities to solve problems in “unexpected directions,” Kramer said.

“They’re making a major investment and want a long-term relationship with Illinois that didn’t exist last year,” he said.

That relationship may or may not include Blue Waters beyond 2020, Gropp said.

“It’s an old computer at this point. It’s still very, very powerful, but a lot of the parts are harder to get and maintenance becomes more difficult,” Gropp said. “We’ll have to see sometime next year what the options are.”

NCSA has other supercomputers devoted to a global astronomy project and research with industry partners, and any long-term collaborations with the geospatial agency could involve a new supercomputer, he said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).